Trash Intelligence

All Intelligence is information, not all information is intelligence (Lowenthal, 2000)

Trash can be a valuable source of intelligence but how can it be of value and what are the dangers people and businesses need to watch out for? In this article, we look at how to structure the management of intelligence and what you need to know about Trash intelligence.

In today’s business and government environment, using intelligence is vital to make plans for the future and to predict, understand and spot/isolate threats. Intelligence consists of information, both tangible or intangible. These can be anything from blue prints, product information and client details to pricing and even ideas.

A vast amount of money is understandably poured into the IT sector in order safeguard intellectual property and other information. Often there is also an extensive effort directed to social media monitoring to learn who is who, who says what and to whom.

Despite the fact most information resides on clouds, servers and other forms of digital storage, we still print, make notes, and send messages, be it electronically or via paper.

What most companies and other sectors disregard is the Human Intelligence factor which also play a very crucial role in the society we live. One reason for this our focus on digital threats and ignorance about garbage. Garbage can be a very valuable source to people seeking intelligence.

So, what defines this garbage or trash? By trash we mean:

  • rubbish or waste, especially domestic refuse
  • seemingly worthless or meaningless material or ideas
  • unwanted data in a computer’s memory


Purpose of the Intelligence Cycle

The Intelligence Cycle is designed to assist intelligence agencies and analysts to gain useful information that can help identify threats. More sophisticated criminals also use forms of the intelligence cycle, typically for extortion-based crime.

The Intelligence Management Cycle consists of 5 elements:

  • Planning (deciding the key objective)
  • Collecting (how, when, who, where and why)
  • Analysing
  • Dissemination
  • Recommendations

The Intelligence Cycle differs from Counterintelligence due to its proactive approach, Counterintelligence is reactive in nature. The first step in the Intelligence Management Cycle is Planning. Planning is about deciding the key objective and then the Intelligence Management Cycle moves onto the next step of information collection.

There are a myriad of ways raw intelligence data is collected and then, through the intelligence cycle, it is analysed and converted into useful intelligence and presented to decision makers.


Trash Intelligence

This comes into play during the collection point of the Intelligence Management Cycle.

Typically, intelligence analysts (government, corporate or even criminal) will try to find the most inexpensive and reliable source of information.

Human Intelligence activity consists of different methods, surveillance, countersurveillance, intelligence operatives, informants, technical means, etc, and has one key objective that is to collect intelligence (information) based on the intelligence objective.

A method often overlooked, and one of the most inexpensive forms of intelligence gathering, is trash intelligence, or as we call it “TrashInt”. This is intelligence collection through searching someone else’s garbage or waste.

Most people will see garbage as having no value, hence it being considered trash.

There is a surprising range of things that end up in the trash, including tax file details, invoices, receipts, work documents, blue prints and digital storage devices. Trash intelligence includes digital items too. More than likely, we have all replaced our computer, phone or tablet. All digital devices contain data and this frequently remains on hard drives and devices. Research we carried out a few years ago found 15 out of 52 second-hand hard drives purchased on the open market contained highly sensitive personal data including bank account details, medical information and home addresses.

Trash Intelligence doesn’t only assist intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the profiling of suspects, but it can give criminals a considerable about of very personal or sensitive business data.


Legality of Trash Intelligence

In case you were wondering whether it is legal to search someone’s trash, if the bins are on a private/business premises then it is illegal without a search warrant. This is also true of secure, locked bins. However, once garbage is on a street or in a public premise, it is not illegal.



The most common approach in the protection of information, intellectual property and blue prints etc is through digital security. Clearly this is important, but we must not forget what the weakest link is often humans and what they leave unprotected.

Do not forget the human aspect. Understanding the way intelligence is gathered and used can assist in finding information or keeping it hidden. Not paying attention to your trash can make you extremely vulnerable to criminal activity that could easily find some of your most personal
information and use it against you.


This post was written by Mario Bekes